Indonesia’s Islam and Democracy

There are two major narratives on Islam and democracy in Indonesia. The first, which seems to be fashionable among the world’s political leaders, claims that Indonesia is an example of how Islam and democracy can be compatible. The second, which mostly comes from human rights activists, states that Indonesia is no model for Muslim democracy given the rising religious intolerance and minority persecutions in the last decade. To get a balanced view of Islam and democracy in Indonesia, both narratives must certainly be taken into consideration.

It is correct that, as far as the number of population is concerned, Indonesia is the third largest democratic country on the planet after the United States and India. What makes Indonesia somewhat an anomaly is that it is the world’s largest Muslim country: around 86 percent out of approximately 250 million Indonesians adhere to Islam. Researchers of Indonesian politics often describe that, despite the first principle of Pancasila (“Belief in One and Supreme God”), Indonesia is neither a theocractic nor a secular state. This fact in turn subverts the grand narrative that secularism—in its strict sense of marginalization of religion from public sphere—is a prerequisite for democracay to thrive.

The Indonesian experience, therefore, deconstructs such binary distinction and imposes a nuanced spectrum for religion-politics relationship. It also challenges the tendency among scholars of politics to look at the theological debates when dealing with the Islam-democracy discourse. Instead, one must look at the Muslim experiences, on which Indonesia marks a great significance in the discourse; it poses a major example of Islam-democracy compatibility.

Contrary to the past scholars of politics who claimed that Islam and democracy cannot go hand in hand due to, for the most part, the Islamic theological absence of religion-state separation, one cannot deny that it was Muslim leaders who were leading Indonesian transition (called “Reformasi”) from the authoritarian military-backed rule of the “New Order” to democracy era. Three Muslim leaders who were advocating democracy are noteworthy: Abdurrahman Wahid (from Nahdlatul Ulama, NU), Amien Rais (from Muhammadiyah), and Nurcholish Madjid (from Muslim modernist trend). After Reformasi, Indonesia has held generally free and fair four parliamentary and presidential elections (i.e. 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014). Also, in post-Reformasi, Indonesia has gradually become democratized as indicated by among others freedom to form political parties, freedom of the press, and the ratification of several internasional human rights documents whose values have eventually been included in the amendments of the Constitution.

The are at least three things worth taking into account in explaining the force behind this democratization process.

First is the strength of Indonesian Muslim civil society, particularly NU and Muhammadiyah. Ideas from leading Muslim democrats cannot be successfully executed without massive supports from the two largest Indonesian Muslim organizations, combined with many pro-democracy groups and student movements. NU and Muhammadiyah have also been consistent in maintaining the so-called “substantive” Islam—as opposed to “formalist” Islam—resulting in the deliberate acceptance of Pancasila as the ideological foundation of Indonesia. Had the two organizations not been there, the picture of Indonesian Islam would be very much different—it would be likely that Indonesia would fall under the Islamists (i.e. proponents of “formalist” Islam).

Second is the nature of Indonesian society. As proven from the results of hitherto general elections, Indonesian Muslims have not been easily attracted to Islamist political parties. Of all the post-Reformasi elections, the first two winners alwasy go to the secular parties. This is partly due to the historical roots of Indonesian politics itself. Since its conception, Indonesian ideological foundation was meant to accomodate all Indonesian citizens from multiple identity backgounds. This has been nailed on the Pancasila-inspiring principle called Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). Indonesia’s founding fathers were also aware of this and as such removing the “seven words” (which could potentially pave the way for the Islamists) from the Constitution. For a few times, Indonesian Islamists have been trying to bring those “seven words” back to the Constitution, yet they always failed. No less important, Indonesian Islam in general is very accomodative to local cultures, which makes it flexible to changes and adaptation.

Third, which is as a result of the second, is that the nature of Indonesian society can drive both Islamist (PPP and PKS) and Muslim-based political parties (PKB and PAN) to appeal Indonesians by campaigning more on common values, not Islamic agenda. On this, democratization process has shown its moderating force, as indicated by the fact that the Islamist parties have to be inclusive and embracing diversity to gain more votes and popular supports. This also brings about a conclusion that if the political system of democracy can provide spaces for Islamic parties in certain context such as Indonesia, they can gradually be moderate.

These three things can be lessons of maintaining both Islam and democracy together in the Muslim world, particularly in Arab-speaking countries. While the second thing cannot be exported because it is relatively unique to Indonesian context, the first and the third can be seen as a prototype or preconditions for Islam and democracy to work hand in hand.

Having said that, however, being the most democratic among Muslim-majority countries (according to the most recent report by Global Democracy Ranking) does not make Indonesian democracy have no critical notes, particularly in its implementation of democratic values.

Of critical notes are that atheists and followers of indigenous religions (called penghayat kepercayaan) have still no equal civil rights as their religious counterparts of the six recognized religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). More importantly, especially in the last decade, there are a number of minority persecutions directed againts those considered deviants, particularly the Shiites and Ahmadis—a problem which up to now has not been properly solved. This problem in part has to do with the legacy of the past regimes through the 1965 Law on Defamation of Religion, because of which having different “deviant’ beliefs can potentially count as a crime of defaming religion. Another part is due to the rise of Salafi ideology, which is also a global phenomenon happening in most Muslim countries.

While there are great achievements, the question of the minority position within Muslim community still poses a big challenge to the compatibility between Islam and democracy in Indonesia. It is by overcoming this problem that Indonesian democracy can make more progress and be a better lesson for the rest Muslim-majority countries.


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